Monday, April 22, 2013

Annette Funicello: From Mouseketeer to the Beach

Ask the birds and the bees 
And ask the stars above 
Who's their favourite sweet brunette 
You know, each one confesses: 
Annette! Annette!  Annette!
- Ditty from The Mickey Mouse Club

When I heard the news of Annette Funicello's death, I had been planning to write a piece about her.  Now it will have to be a posthumous tribute.  She passed away on April 8, 2013 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.  Her death came 21 years after her announcement in 1992 that she had been diagnosed with the neurological disease.  She actually learned that she had MS in 1987, but kept her condition a secret from the public for five years.  Fearing that her condition would be wrongly interpreted as drunkenness, she finally revealed her illness and became a tireless advocate for MS research, establishing the Annette Funicello Institute for Neurological Diseases

Annette Joanne Funicello was born in Utica, New York on October 22, 1942, the daughter of Italian-Americans. Joseph Funicello and his wife Virginia Joanne (nee Albano).  She was spoiled as a child, being the first grandchild on both sides of the family.

In 1946, when Annette was four years old, her family relocated to Southern California so that her father, an auto mechanic, could find better employment opportunities. They lived in a trailer park until Joe Funicello succeeded in finding work.  After living for a time in Studio City, Annette and her parents eventually settled in Encino, California.

Young Annette took dancing lessons and learned how to play the drums.  She also did some modelling.  It was Walt Disney himself who discovered her when she was dancing the lead in Swan Lake at a school recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, California. Disney, who happened to be in the audience, was more interested in amateur child actors than professionals  He personally chose the raven-haired 12-year for his new children's television variety show, The Mickey Mouse Club.

Annette was hired immediately and was the last of the 24 original Mouseketeers to be chosen for the first season of the series which debuted on October 3, 1955. Baby boomers tuned in faithfully every afternoon to watch the ABC program on their black and white televisions.  Annette soon became the most popular Mouseketeer, receiving more fan mail than any other member of the group.  For television viewers of the 1950s, Annette was the girl-next-door with a difference.  Although she was as cute as a button, she wasn't the usual blue-eyed blonde type.  She had dark curly hair and olive skin and her last name was Funicello.  With her mouse ears, pleated skirt and turtleneck sweater emblazoned with her first name, she captivated legions of fans.

The Mickey Mouse Club ran for three seasons and in reruns until the 1990s.  For Disney, Annette was a marketing dream-come-true.  There was a slew of Annette lunch boxes and dolls and mystery novels.  When the show ended its original run in 1958, Annette was the only Mouseketeer offered a studio contract.  She then appeared in Disney's first live-action comedy film, The Shaggy Dog and other Disney films such as Johnny Tremain, The Horsemasters, Babes in Toyland, The Misadventures of Marin Jones and The Monkey's Uncle.

Annette was also cast in the Disney-produced television western, Zorro, starring Guy Williams.  She played a character named Anita Cabrillo and was even given the opportunity to sing on the show.  According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present, her role on Zorro was a birthday gift from Walt Disney.  Below is a vintage ABC Television Publicity Lobby Card of Annette in a special hour-long episode of Zorro entitled "The Postponed Wedding."  It aired on January 1, 1961.

Annette Funicello remained unwavering in her loyalty to "Mr. Disney."  Of  her Disney years, she remarked forty years later: "I've been blessed to have a mentor like Walt Disney.  Those years were the happiest of my life.  I felt that back then.  I feel the same today." She also once said, "I'm saddened to see that some have been misled into believing that Mr. Disney was something other than a kind, caring man."  As for Mickey Mouse, Annette often repeated that "Mickey is more than a mouse to me.  I am honoured to call him a friend."

In 1959, Annette appeared in five episodes of the Danny Thomas sitcom Make Room for Daddy.  She played an Italian exchange student named Gina Minelli in five episodes of the series: "Gina from Italy" (Season 6, Episode 19, Air Date: February 9, 1959), "Gina's First Date" (Season 6, Episode 21, February 23, 1959). "Frankie Laine Sings for Gina" (Season 6, Episode, Air Date: March 9, 1959), "The Latin Lover" (Season 6, Episode 25, Air Date: March 23, 1959) and "Gina for President" (May 11, 1959).  Note: Singer Frankie Laine played himself in "Frankie Laine Sings for Gina."

The two photos below are from Annette's appearances on Make Room for Daddy.  In the second photo, she appears with Rusty Hamer and Angela Cartwright, Danny Thomas' TV children.

Annette and singer/songwriter Paul Anka shared a teenage love which inspired him to write his 1960 hit song, "Puppy Love."  Anka told The Associated Press that during the time they were together, Disney tried to put an end to their relationship.  He said, "The Disney crowd, and understandably so, didn't want her too involved at too young an age.  He added, "We had our professional careers and what have you, and they continued to tell her it was puppy love, and marriage should not be in question."  In her 1994 memoir with Patricia Romanowski,  A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, Annette wrote, "As Paul wrote in his song about us, just because we were 17 didn't mean that, for us, our love wasn't real."

Upon learning of Annette's death, Anka paid tribute to his former flame with these words:  "Annette was a star from the time she was 12 years old., and I met her shortly after.  In addition to her talent, she was self-possessed, determined, had incredible integrity, and was loved by everyone.  When life threw her a terrible curve, she showed the best side of herself by coming forward to discuss her MS with courage and candour.  As much as he entertained us as a young woman, she gave so much more by sharing her experience and raising awareness of this disease.  She was kind and intelligent and she will be missed by her family and her wide circle of friends, in which I was lucky to be included."

Annette and Paul Anka

During the early and mid-60s, Annette and Frankie Avalon starred in a string of beach movies.  The first of the series was 1963's Beach Party.   The pair became extremely popular and other beach films followed with titles such as Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). They were fluffy, fun-in-the-sun films and moviegoers of the 1960s flocked to theatres to watch them.  Although well aware that the films were not great art, Annette regarded her movies with Avalon as good clean entertainment.  In 1993, she stated, "I think they were a way of holding onto some innocence as we went into a more complicated era."

Annette and Frankie were reunited on the big screen in 1987's Back to the Beach, a parody of their 1960s beach flicks.  All grown up and living in the midwest, they return to Southern California to visit their daughter, only to rediscover their beach-partying ways.  It was while filming Back to the Beach that Annette first experienced symptoms of MS.  Her balance was off and she had difficulty walking.

Annette and Frankie on the beach

On January 9, 1965, Annette.married her agent, Jack Gilardi.  The wedding took place at St. Cyril's Catholic Church in Encino, California.  A reception followed at the Beverly Hilton Holtel.  The bride was 22 years old and Jack, who was born on October 5, 1930, was 34.  Charles Schulz, in his Peanuts comic strip, depicted Linus reading a newspaper announcing the marriage with the blaring headline: "ANNETTE FUNICELLO HAS GROWN.UP."

Jack and Annette had three children, daughter Gina (born October 17, 1965) and two sons, Jack, Jr. (born February 10, 1970) and Jason Michael (born October 21, 1974).  The couple separated in 1981 and according to, they were officially divorced on March 21, 1983.  Of her divorce, Annette had this to say in 1987.

When I was divorced, I grew up for the first time. I had been so very much in the arms of my father and then Walt Disney and then my ex-husband. I didn't know how to write a cheque, much less balance a chequebook. Everything was taken care of for me, always with love, and great TLC. But it wasn't always good for me." (Source: Bob Thomas. "Back to the Beach." The Associated Press. April 25, 1987)

Annette and Jack Gilardi wedding photo

Daughter Gina, now 47, has been married John Portman, owner of Palisades Reality since 1994. She  is currently Vice-President and marketing executive at Grand Entertainment. Her younger brother, Jack, Jr. is now 43 and Jason, 38, is a drummer  for a Tulsa-based music band called New Science.   In a 1994 interview with Style magazine, Gina asserted that her mother "was always there for car pools, Hot Dog Day and the PTA."

Gina Gilardi Portman

During the 1970s and 1980s, Annette appeared occasionally on television shows. She was featured in ads for Skippy peanut butter in which she issued the Skippy challenge: Which has more protein, Fish, bologna or Skippy peanut butter?  To view Annette in two commercials for Skippy, click on the link below.  The first one is from 1981 and the second is from 1984.

In 1986, Annette appeared on an episode of Growing Pains entitled "The Seavers vs. the Cleavrs" (Season 1, Episode 16, Air Date: January 28, 1986) in which she portrayed a character called Mrs. Hinkley.  Later that year, on May 3, 1986, Annette married horse breeder Glen Holt.  They wed in a small ceremony at the Chapel in the Canyon in Canoga Park, located in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles. There were about 30 people in attendance, including Annette's close friend, Shelley Fabares, and her husband, Mike Farrell.  Annette's daughter Gina served as maid of honour and Glen's son Mike was his father's best man.

Annette and Glen wedding photo

According to the website of the Annettte Funicello Resrarch Fund for Neurological Diseases, Glen asked Annette marry him on Valentine's Day, 1985 while they were dining at an Italian restaurant.  Annette and Glen had first met when Annette was a teenager.  At the time, she owned a racehorse by the name of Troy Hedgewood.  Her parents would take her to the track to see the horse run and she would often see Glen there.  They lost contact with each other, however, and did not meet again until the early 1970s when Glen noticed Annette and her mother, Virginia, in the stands at the track.  He said hello and the two became reacquainted. Years later, after both had been divorced, they went out to dinner and began dating.

Glen and Annette

Annette life story was made into a television movie, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, based on her autobiography of the same title, taken from the name of a song from Disney's Cinderella.  The film was shot in Vancouver and many of Annette's friends, such as Frankie Avalon, Shelley Fabares and Dick Clark flew there to play themselves during some of its most significant moments.

 A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes was originally broadcast on CBS on Sunday, October 22, 1995 and its ratings were very good.  Eva LaRue, best known for her roles on the daytime soap All My Children and on CSI Miami, portrayed Annette. Linda Lavin played the role of Virginia Funicello and Len Cariou played Walt Disney. Annette and her entire real-life family, including her parents, made an appearance at the end of the movie followed by a  public service message from Annette in support of the MS Foundation of America.

Annette Funicello was a long-time resident of Encino, California.  In fact, she lived there until the house was burned to the ground in a fire in March of 2011.  Both Annnette and husband Glen were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.  After the fire, the couple relocated to Bakersfield, California.  In October of 2012, Glen Holt permitted Canada's CTV network's current affairs and news program, W5, into the couples' home to reveal the toll multiple sclerosis had taken on his wife after almost a quarter of a century.  Annette was confined to a wheelchair and had been unable to speak for almost three years.

81-year-old Glen, who had been a devoted caregiver to Annette during her lengthy struggle with the debilitating disease, told W5, "I'm sorry that she's this way.  I would love to have her back dancing and singing and doing everything she always loved to do.  But she can't do it."  He said that he did not regret marrying Annette "one iota." and that they had promised to take care of each other "come hell or high water" when they tied the knot.

Annette Funicello died at a hospital in Bakersfield on April 8, 2013 of complications from MS.  She was 70 years old at the time of her passing.  Annette is survived by her three children, four stepchildren, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

- Joanne

No comments:

Post a Comment